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Hundreds gather in Queens park to mourn churchgoers' killings

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center,

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, embraces Rev. Floyd Flake of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral before addressing people at a rally in Queens, Saturday, June 20, 2014, in the wake of the shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. earlier in the week. Photo Credit: AP / Craig Ruttle

Hundreds from across New York City and Long Island marched in Queens Saturday to honor nine slain churchgoers in South Carolina, a ceremony that became a literal rallying cry for tighter gun restrictions and an end to racism.

By turns heartbroken and furious, mourners in St. Albans Memorial Park sang spirituals, quoted the Bible and condemned the killings last week, allegedly by a racist gunman bent on slaughtering black people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

"Brothers and sisters -- this was an act of terrorism," Mayor Bill de Blasio said to applause, as a light mist fell on the park. "It was an act of domestic terrorism. It was an act of racist terrorism."

De Blasio had strode arm in arm with AME pastors and congregants as they sang "We Shall Overcome" and other iconic songs with church roots.

"Can't turn around!" they sang. "We've come this far by faith!"

Signs held aloft carried messages old -- verses from Corinthians and Isaiah -- and new -- a trending hashtag #IAmAME.

Nicole Smith, 29, a college student who works with people with disabilities and worships at Westbury's Bethel AME Church, went to the Queens rally to mourn with her husband.

"I came to support my church," she said. "I am an AME -- all my life. This hits home for me -- even though we're not physically there in South Carolina."

Craig Robinson, pastor of Bethel AME Church of Bay Shore, recounted finishing up Bible study and feeling "almost numb" when he saw news of Wednesday night's shooting on Facebook -- an alert sent by a Baptist preacher friend in Kentucky.

"I came here in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in South Carolina," Robinson said.

The Rev. Evelyn Miller-Suber of First Hempstead AME said gatherings like Saturday's in Queens allow people to air their feelings on the shootings, commiserate and speak in a collective voice.

"It's pure evil manifesting, and we need to be aware that that's real, and we also need to be aware that there's something that can be done about it, and prayer is the way to go."

Assemb. N. Nick Perry (D-Brooklyn) led a chant calling for South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. Comptroller Scott Stringer and de Blasio said now was the time to impose more restrictions on guns.

"This is a moment of reckoning," de Blasio said. "Now it is our time to say, this is that never-again moment!"

The politicians' speeches and pastors' preaching nearing an end, the Rev. Craig J. Wright of Calvary AME Church of Glen Cove called out nine names as nine candles were lit for nine dead churchgoers.


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